Riverfront Arts Centre

Jan 10th - Jan 31st, 2015

View the lost connections exhibition at the riverfront


Lost Connections by Marion Cheung

Lost Connections

‘Lost Connections’ transports us from the familiarity of our addiction to social media feeds, the cold blue light of digital screens that constantly distract us – to the largest e-waste dump in the world, in Agbogbloshie, Ghana – a place that I researched through the work of documentary photographers Andrew McConnell and Kevin McElvaney.

A few years ago, it was predicted that in 2017 that there will be more than 10 billion mobile-internet connected devices worldwide, with very short life spans as companies are producing them in such a way that they are not easily repairable - it's cheaper to throw it away and buy a new one rather than get it repaired. Our electronic goods are very sophisticated, containing tiny components that are impossible to recycle economically.

We have lost the skills to repair what we already have...

It is encouraging to see this taking place: https://www.edinburghremakery.org.uk

In 2014, a news story caught my attention - highlighting the largest e-waste dump in the world, Agbogbloshie, Ghana which used to be a wetland. It took just 15 years for it to become an environmental disaster where 'rivers have turned black and green...turgid chemicals seeping into the ground...' 
Communities live there with young people and children scavenging through digital detritus - seeking out the little bits of gold and copper from electronic goods to make a living. Plastics from computer monitors are burnt as a quick and easy fix, so that the valuable metals can be retrieved and sold. People carrying out this work without taking heed to the health risks.

It's a complicated story. From the outside it looks like rich countries dumping on poor, flouting international laws (Basel Convention, 1981) that should be preventing unrecyclable e-waste from coming into the country. Illegal e-waste dumping has become a lucrative business as safe recycling practices are expensive. Sometimes shipping containers bring the promise of slightly out of date computers that could be used within the communit, but instead they are unrecyclable and damaged goods.

‘Lost Connections’ is a response to story - to raise questions about e-waste; our relationship to digital technology and each other. We don't stop to think what happens to our gadgets when they are no longer wanted as we are just so pre-occupied with our little blue screens.

To create this series, I worked with Year 10 students from Bassaleg High School who created all the representations of e-waste on the triptych and sound artist Steven George Jones. Audio samples were collected from digital games together with sounds of my paintbrush strokes and a stanley knife chipping away at vinyl stencils which were applied to canvas. Some were recorded in a big plastic bubble and mashed together somehow by Steve. QR codes were made for each painting so that visitors to the exhibition could listen to the audios. Visitors wandered around the exhibition looking at the paintings and looking at their phones.

Whilst making Lost Connections, artist John Selway (1938-2017) had a studio space next door to me at Upmarket Galleries. It was a privilege to have shared ideas about painting and technique with him. He often visited to see how my work was progressing. I knew who he was but I wasn't 'star-struck' as he was such a down to earth character. He encouraged me to 'add absurdity' - the girls laughing at their mobile phone whilst standing on burning e-waste, the triangles of flock wallpaper cutting into the space are results of conversations we had.

Coloured paper collage, layering paint and composition were also things we liked to talk about as well as sharing our dislike of visible paint strokes. We put paint on in thin layers, working like a printmaker. Sadly John died recently following a long battle with cancer. I am so grateful to have met him and have fond memories of my unexpected mentor. The last time I saw him, was in his studio in Abertillery where he might have passed on some of his painting secrets...of how he makes the light appear to shine out from nowhere... 

With thanks to staff and pupils of Bassaleg High School, Nicola Yeoman - LLanwern High School, The Project Space, Upmarket Galleries, NCC, Wastesavers, Rhys and Gawaine Webber, James Carreon and Martin Browning.